ST. PETERSBURG, Fl — Conservation groups sent a notice today of their intent to sue Manatee County for its plan to inject toxic pollutants from the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack into the lower Floridan aquifer.
The notice letter comes six months after the near collapse of the radioactive gypstack prompted state officials to order the emergency evacuation of hundreds of Manatee County homes and to authorize the discharge of wastewater from Piney Point into Tampa Bay.
The 215 million gallons of discharged wastewater spread throughout the estuary and into Sarasota Bay, transporting tons of nitrogen and other pollutants into waterways and communities and spurring a red-tide bloom that killed thousands of tons of marine life, including sea turtles and manatees.
Now Manatee County seeks to inject the remaining waste from the Piney Point gypstack into the lower Floridan aquifer.
“This risky, shortsighted plan would be a dangerous experiment and set a troubling precedent for how we handle failing phosphogypsum stacks,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently approved the expansion of the sinkhole-prone New Wales gypstack, deepening Florida’s commitment to living with these toxic waste sites for generations. It’s easy to envision them granting another deepwell injection permit the next time something else goes wrong.”
Under the Manatee County proposal Piney Point’s radioactive waste would be injected underground into the fragile, porous karst geology that holds the groundwater supplies millions of Floridians depend on for drinking water.
Piney Point was a problematic phosphate fertilizer plant that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Manatee County Port Authority turned into a disposal site for dredge material. After the owner abandoned the property, the department owned and operated Piney Point from 2001 to 2004. During that time, it oversaw the installation of inadequate liners and approved the use of Piney Point for dredged material storage, despite knowing that the gypstacks were not engineered structures and at risk of failure due to foundation settling.
“The phosphate industry and FDEP continue to fail to ensure safe disposal of the industry’s polluted waste,” said Justin Bloom, Suncoast Waterkeeper founder and board member. “Manatee County shouldn’t ‘carry their water’ at Piney point, particularly where there is no plan to remove legacy toxic and radioactive contaminants before dumping millions of gallons of wastewater down the well.”
The fertilizer industry creates more than 30 million tons of phosphogypsum in Florida each year. Phosphogypsum is radioactive and can contain uranium, thorium and radium, which decay into carcinogenic radon. In addition to these radioactive carcinogens, phosphogypsum and process water can contain heavy toxic metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium and zinc.
This waste is stored in mountainous piles called gypstacks that are hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall. More than 1 billion tons of the radioactive and toxic waste have already been stored in 25 stacks scattered throughout Florida. The stacks are perched precariously atop the Floridan aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 10 million people. Both active and inactive gypstacks have impoundments of process wastewater sitting atop the mountain of waste.
“There are many problems associated with deepwell injection: Wells are subject to failure and there are too many unknown hazards with injecting phosphogypsum wastewater,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88. “Deepwell injection is done because liquid wastes cannot be discharged into surface waters, thus the worst wastes end up in these wells.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is accepting comments on Manatee County’s deepwell injection request until its hearing on Oct. 6.
“Florida’s officials are gambling with our water quality and our children’s futures,” said Annie Beaman, co-executive director of the Our Children’s Earth Foundation. “Manatee County’s proposal relies on guesswork regarding the long-term risks of injecting this dangerous pollution deep underground. For too long, the phosphate industry has taken advantage of lax regulations, bankruptcy laws that unfairly benefit corporate interests, and other legal loopholes. We need better.”
“It is both unlawful and unwise for Manatee County to inject Piney Point’s hazardous waste into the ground simply for the sake of expediency,” said Daniel Snyder, an attorney with the Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt, P.C., who is representing the groups. “For too long, Florida regulators have stood by while the situation at Piney Point deteriorated. Now, instead of directly cleaning up this environmental disaster and abating the endangerment it poses, regulators decide to sweep the problem under the geologic rug, putting Florida’s groundwater at risk of significant contamination.”
“There are too many unknowns for this to be our way forward,” said Megan Eakins, board chair of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. “We need more clarity about injection well risks, the composition of the waste stream, and alternatives to be sure that this is the best way to protect our vulnerable environment and communities from this toxic, radioactive waste.”
In June the groups filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, HRK Holdings, LLC and the Manatee County Port Authority for the April release of hundreds of tons of hazardous pollutants from Piney Point into Tampa Bay and groundwater.